Sunday, August 14, 2016

Project: Harry Potter Style Wand and Case

For my Harry-Potter-loving, soon-to-be sister-in-law's birthday, we decided to make a couple of magic wands.

I started with three pieces of 7/8" square walnut, each about 15" long.

That's a Glenlivet 16 year Scotch, if you're curious

I decided to try a couple of styles. I hand carved the first wand using the hatchet, chisel, and knife. The second wand was a bit more complicated. 


I don't own a lathe, but I do own a drill.

I drilled pilot holes in each end of the walnut, then drilled screws into each end. On the left side, I put a hex nut on the screw before driving it into the walnut. I tightened my bench vise on the hex nut, giving me a flexible, low friction rotation point. 

I clamped my drill to the bench at an angle so that the walnut would rotate smoothly. Then I tightened the chuck on the screw at the right end of the walnut. 

This worked surprisingly well. I didn't have a knife rest, so I opted to use a file for most of the work. I started with a rough file and gradually rounded out the piece.

After establishing the basic shape, I switched to a fine file and finalized the shape. Then I used 80, 120, and 320 grit sandpaper to get a smooth finish. 

Finally, I used a water-based protective finish to keep the wands in good condition but not detract from the natural color of the wood.


I wanted to make a case which felt like it could have been pulled from a thousand-year old shelf. I started by ripping 1/8 and 1/4 walnut planks.  

  • Sides: 1/4x2x14"
  • Top: 1/8x2.5x14"
  • Bottom: 1/8x2.5x13.5
  • Ends: 1/8x2x2.5
Using a table saw, I cut groves in the sides to accommodate the top, bottom, and ends.

I put Titebond wood glue in the grooves, then clamped it together (leaving out the top).

I sanded it with 80 grit sandpaper.

Finally, I used boiled linseed oil to protect it and give it a timeless look.


Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith

T.D. Smith's books on Goodreads

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Project: Raspberry Pi Based Network Attached Storage


My goal in this project was to establish low power, low maintenance, and low cost redundant storage. I was willing to compromise on speed in order to keep costs low. 


I used a pair of 1-terabyte external hard drives connected by USB with external power. These were connected to a Raspberry Pi B+.


I used Rasbian Linux on the Raspberry Pi with mdadm for RAID.


For external access I have SSH access forwarded to the NAS. However, access is by SSH key only



Performance is pretty poor - I get about 3.5 MB/second when reading and writing data. Large file transfers take quite a while (12+ hours).


The whole setup cost about $165:

Power Consumption

Under load this setup uses about 12 watts. Not bad! That's about 105 kilowatt hours per year, or about $7 per year. 


This project met my objectives for low cost, high availability, redundant storage. It's slow, but it works just fine for seldom-accessed photos and videos and hosting git repositories.

Technical Details: Tools for Writing, Typesetting, and Digital Publishing


When writing a draft, I like to use Google Docs.


  • It's easy to write from any computer
  • Making comments and suggestions is easy
  • Readers can follow along as I write
  • Version history is tracked


  • Requires putting my trust in "the cloud"
  • Formatting options are limited, though this has been improving over time
  • Lacks precision version controls (e.g., taking snapshots)


I use LaTex for typesetting. It's open source (read: free) and widely supported.

After I've gotten a draft into reasonably good shape, I'll transfer the contents to one or more LaTex files. Then I create one or more top-level LaTex files which control the formatting of the book. This allows me to use the same content with different formats. 


  • Books can be split into multiple files
  • Files can be version controlled, so I can track exactly what I changed over time
  • Page formatting can be precisely controlled
  • Compilers exist for all major platforms. I use TeXShop on Mac. 


  • LaTex syntax can be frustrating, but thankfully there are lots of helpful posts on the LaTex StackExchange page.
  • Many LaTex options can conflict with one another. For example, the memoir class provides useful defaults for typesetting a printed book, but can conflict with options in other packages. 

Digital Publishing

I use pandoc to generate Markdown (.md) and EPub (.epub) files, and Sigil to edit the .epub files for submission. 

I've found it's easiest to use pandoc to generate a Markdown file, then make any necessary text tweaks in Markdown before generating an EPub file:

pandoc AbigailBesonForEPub.tex -s -o --epub-cover-image=cover/cover1000x1600.jpg

pandoc -s -o AbigailBeson.epub --epub-cover-image=cover/cover1000x1600.jpg


  • Pandoc and Sigil are both open source. 


  • I've found Pandoc's direct LaTex to EPub conversion loses a lot of detail.
  • Pandoc's LaTex to Markdown conversion preserves most details, but can't handle some LaTex options. For example, I used the rlap option to avoid line wrapping (see below) and discovered pandoc simply deleted the affected lines.
\begin{vplace}[0.3]\begin{verse}From gray skies poured a \rlap{crushing flood} \\Through vengeance torn a \rlap{bond of blood} \\Strength alone won't stem the tide \\Yet peace was glimpsed, hold fast; abide \\\end{verse}\end{vplace}
Resulted in:
From gray skies poured a
Through vengeance torn a
Strength alone won't stem the tide
Yet peace was glimpsed, hold fast; abide
This type of error forced me to manually edit the Markdown file before proceeding to EPub editing.

Sigil is great for editing details like the table of contents. However, I've found that if I try to edit the EPub cover file in Sigil it gets lost entirely and iBooks can't find it.

Version Control

I used git for version control. I initially used a private github repository, but later switched to hosting my own on my Raspberry Pi based NAS. Similar to LaTex, git is powerful but initially daunting to learn.

Copyright 2016 Tyler Smith

T.D. Smith's books on Goodreads 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Homeschool Curriculum Guide to the Siege of Abigail Beson

Update! The expanded guide including The Subversion of Abigail Beson and The Forging of Abigail Beson is here.

The Siege of Abigail Beson is historical fiction aimed at young adults. The story takes place in rural Virginia the summer of 1865 and includes a variety of historical references which provide anchors for discussion and further exploration into the history of the American Civil War. This page provides a guide for instructors using the book as part of their curriculum.

Part One: The Siege of Abigail Beson

Vocabulary Words

  • Avarice (Page 3)
  • Antagonist (Page 23)
  • Robber Barron (Page 33)
  • Trepidation (Page 40)

Points for Further Exploration

  • Conclusion of the American Civil War (Page 1)
  • Quantrill's Raiders (Page 9)
  • Mexican-American War (Page 12)
  • Civil War era weaponry (Page 32)
  • Living conditions and mortality rates in army camps during the American Civil War (Page 50)

Suggested Activities

Decode the hidden messages in these maps (click for large view):

Review Questions with Suggested Answers (Warning: Spoilers)

1. Who is the protagonist in this story? How do you know? 
A. The protagonist is Abby Beson. The story is told from her perspective and focuses on events as they happen to her. 

2. Who is the antagonist in this story? How do you know? Who did you think was the antagonist?
A. Vera is the antagonist. At the end of the story we discover that she has been stealing from banks and she threatens the family in order to make her escape. At the beginning of the story I thought the "bandits" in the woods were the antagonists.

3. Why does Vera say people are pursuing her? What do we learn about her story?
A. Vera says that there were rumors her husband had taken gold from a bank and that criminals wanted to steal it. We learn that Vera actually stole the gold and that the militia was pursuing her. 

4. Which part of the Beson house would you want to live in? Why?
A. Student should identify the eastern (used) and western (unused) portions of the house and provide a rationale for one or the other.

5. Why was it difficult for Abby's family to call for help? How would the story have been different if it happened today?
A. In the 1860s telephones had not yet been invented and most families did not have access to a telegraph. A family today would have been able to call for help with a cell phone. 

Part Two: The Excursion of Abigail Beson

Vocabulary Words

  • Cooper (Page 60)
  • Jovial (Page 62)
  • Stoic (Page 63)
  • Cache (Page 110)

Points for Further Exploration

Suggested Activities

Review Questions with Suggested Answers (Warning: Spoilers)

1. Why might mail have been slow to arrive shortly after the end of the American Civil War?
A. The Civil War put a major strain on infrastructure, especially in the Confederate South. Many men were away from their homes and jobs due to fighting.

2. Who is injured in the forest? How is he or she injured?
A. Abby's brother Emery is injured. A tree falls on his leg during a storm. 

3. Abby's brothers Jackson and Benjamin both fought in the war. How does each brother feel about the war and its conclusion?
A. Jackson feels angry that the Confederates lost the war. Benjamin feels indifferent about the war and is happy to see his family. 

4. Who does Abby encounter in the forest? Why is she surprised at who she meets?
A. Abby meets a group of Union soldiers. She is surprised because the soldiers do not know that the war has ended. 

5. Who is Kingsley? Who does Abby think he is when they first meet?
Kingsley is a Union soldier who rode the horse Abby meets in the forest. His name is on the horse's saddle, so Abby initially thinks the horse's name is Kingsley. 

Recommended Non-Fiction Reading

  • Reflections on the Civil War by Bruce Catton